Scotland’s self-declared “new writing theatre”, Edinburgh’s Traverse does like
to offer up an alternative to the pantomimes and decidedly family-focused fare
on offer elsewhere around the city, while still utilising fake snow. Morna
Pearson’s new award-winning play,
How to Disappear appears to be an engaging, and finely tuned examination of mental illness
Admittedly, that’s partly because, almost from the get-go, How to Disappear is funny—surprisingly so. Owen Whitelaw has played quite a few intense, even violent characters in recent years, but he’s a revelation here: his Robert is a naively optimistic creature who is emotionally and intellectually focused inwards, a man-child who hasn’t left his bedroom for 12 years, or in two decades stepped out of the house that he shares with his younger sister Isla. Robert’s hair is matted, his skin cracked and peeling; as a social human being he is barely functioning. Enter his benefits accessor Jessica.
Jessica’s determination—to (a) fill out her forms, and (b) prove that Robert is actually fit for work—is invariably played for comedy, as we see the unstoppable pigeon-holing mentality of the DWP crash against the seemingly immovable realities of Robert and Isla’s dead-end lives. Sally Reid has a real talent for landing the laughs without sacrificing any emotional realism, although it’s fair to say that she benefits from being given a character who is shown some depths from the start; sadly, in comparison, Kirsty Mackay is given little beyond shouty victimhood through which to gain our sympathies.
All in all, How to Disappear appears to be an engaging, and finely tuned examination of mental illness and how people can all-too-easily “disappear” from society. Yet that’s not enough for Morna Pearson; she has a twist up her sleeve, and I don’t just mean the totally unexpected set-change, which designer Becky Minto should be praised for. To avoid “Spoilers”, I won’t say any more, beyond that the second half successfully establishes a radically different framework to explain what’s been going on. As theatrical conceptual breakthroughs go, it effectively underscores and adds pathos to the whole situation.
Director Gareth Nicholls does an excellent job here, not least in keeping the play’s momentum going between scenes, which sometimes involve jumping back and forward over time while the cast shift props in the semi-darkness, our attention focused instead on the flickering digits of Robert’s bedside digital clock. Importantly, he ensures that the finale, while possibly too saccharine for some tastes, nevertheless effectively offers a resolution that fits the seasonal context of this production.